For a sense of war’s excitement, as communicated to children in 1914, you can’t do better than Captain F.S. Brereton’s With French at the Front. The book itself is a magnificent object; the cloth cover above is spectacular enough, but the dust jacket (carefully preserved inside the Bodleian copy) is a visual knockout, an action scene with the dominant colour a rich royal blue. It bears out the point made by Jane Potter a while back that the war presented itself to people of the time as a spectacular and colourful experience (while today we think of it in terms of black-and-white film footage, and mud.)
The hero is Jim Fletcher, attached to the British Embassy in Berlin. We meet him first on August 4th, rescuing Gladys, “a young woman, a slim neat figure, as pronouncedly English in its proportions and appearance as was Jim Fletcher’s” from attack by a “shrieking, bridling” German woman who is at the head of a mob surprised and enraged that England has joined in the war.
Jim and Gladys have some wildly improbable adventures as they escape back to England, meeting plenty of Germans, whose stereotype can be summed up in the description of one who is :
…thick set and jowly. His fleshy cheeks quivered with emotion. His thick lips twitched as he endeavoured to shout, and then took to spitting out the teeth which Jim had loosened.
Fat, uncontrolled and losers, you see? However did they think they could win a war against chaps like Jim?
Jim goes to France with the RFC, but is in the trenches for a big attack. I like the description of the men after the battle:
And back in the trenches lay the gallant fellows who had wrought this thing, the thin khaki line of heroes, the cool, calm, cheery sons of the Empire. There they lay, breathing a little heavily after their exertions, a few nursing wounds, and all joking and laughing again, and already smoking a soothing weed till the next brigade of Germans dared to disturb them.
Meanwhile Gladys at home is the prey of the vile Guggenheimer, a German spy, who aims to trick her into marriage for the sake of her money. Does he succeed? I’ll leave you to guess.
The Times Literary Supplement reviewer called the book “melodramatic and sensational, and not the best reading for boys.” Well, I enjoyed it.
One thing that intrigued me was the war that Belgian soldiers, in an extrapolation, I suppose of the phrase “gallant little Belgium”, are throughout represented as small.